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Memoir Madness

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MEMOIR MADNESS

The good news is, today I wrote almost 1,300 words. I know that’s not much compared to the over-achieving masses who will participate in National Novel Writing Month in November, dashing off 1,667 words every day for 30 days in pursuit of a 50,000-word novel. But it’s pretty good for me. Yesterday was only 500 words, and it was crap.

The bad news is, only about 350 of today’s words have the slightest chance of contributing to my final word count because I went on a 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum (about which I will tell you), and because I got mired in shame.

The downside of searching for patterns and themes in your life is that when you find them — or they find you — they may not be the lovely themes and patterns you had imagined were the narrative of your life. Alarmingly, my redemptive spiritual coming-of-age story seems to be all about shame and secrecy. Mind you, neither “shame” nor “secrecy” appear anywhere in my chapter outlines (such as they are), yet every scene leads me there.

I knew that the alcoholic father/enabling mother business would produce a few sentences on shame, but when your alcoholic father is also an undercover CIA agent in Miami during the Cuban missile crisis, the secrets can multiply quickly. Next thing you know, you’re writing about stealing your friend’s stuffed mouse, and your sister’s souvenir coin, and the shiny set of keys dangling from the door of the shiny new Dodge at the dealership, and you’re thinking, “This isn’t what my memoir is about.”

So then you take a break from your memoir and you draft a blog post about shame, which you start thinking is not half-bad, and so you begin revising and playing with words and researching outlets that might publish something like that, but while you are doing this, you remember that last spring you were working on a piece for the New York Time’s Modern Love column and so you find that and start revising it, and then you are googling your dead ex-boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend and so you stop.

At some point, I also searched “shame” in my blog archives and discovered that I’ve written 59 separate posts that at least mention it. This makes 60. I may soon have to acknowledge its existence.

Now about that 400-word digression that ended in a conundrum: As an ethical memoirist, if someone told you a story when you were a child and you have always believed it to be true but then you find out it’s not technically true, actually not even close, can you still use the story without fessing up that it’s not true after all? If everyone involved is long dead? I’m asking for a friend, of course.

And – BAM! Another 482 words, done.

 

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In Honor of National Coming Out Day

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I want to recognize and celebrate National Coming Out Day, even if I don’t seem to be able to string together two sentences lately. I used to get stressed out when I had nothing to offer the empty page or the blank blog, but these days I am being kind to myself.

It is what it is (or isn’t).

Like many Americans, I am alternatively depressed, angry, stunned, or terrified by the raging chaos in the White House that has spewed onto the international stage. The result of the jarring tug-of-war in my head is a kind of creative paralysis. I’m not even writing in my personal journal, which is pretty unusual. It’s almost as if any type of reflection is dangerous — I need to be detached at the moment.

Still, on some occasions we must rise above, and I deem National Coming Out Day to be one of those occasions.

The pain and confusion experienced by most LGBTQ people at some time in their lives has deeply affected me in ways that I won’t go into right now. I have seen the utter misery of someone who is unable to come out of the closet, and I have witnessed the ebullient joy of someone finally being true to who they are.

I honor the courage of my friends and family who have struggled, and I salute you today — in or out of the closet. May there come a day when all feel safe being themselves.

Today and everyday I reject judgment, intolerance, hatred, and bigotry, most especially when it purports to be connected with Jesus Christ. That spirit does not come from the Jesus I know.

“The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (The Bible, Galatians 5:22-23.)

Period. And amen.

An Epidemic of Shame in the U.S.

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An Epidemic of Shame in the U.S.

There are aren’t enough words to describe our collective cycling emotions since the Tuesday of Darkness.

After church on Sunday, we gathered for prayer and began by sharing how we were feeling. Strong words cascaded around our circle: betrayed, heartbroken, outraged, terrified, grieving, overwhelmed, hurt. Many were afraid on behalf of at-risk people that they care for: teachers of Hispanic kids, nurses of low-income people, caregivers of handicapped people, parents of little girls and children of color.

These are good people, people who follow the biblical mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.” They are reacting the way I would imagine Jesus would react to the ascendency of a man who preaches hate, violence, and racism. They are deeply grieved.

I’ve had all of those feelings and then some, but the one that surprises me most is shame. I am ashamed of my fellow Americans, ashamed of my fellow Christians who voted for the president-elect, ashamed of my country. I find myself whispering over and over: “I thought we were better than that, I thought we were better than that.”

I don’t usually take on corporate or institutional shame. I have enough of my own personal shame to keep me busy for a lifetime. This isn’t guilt, which I’ve heard many folks express. I wasn’t complacent. I donated. I volunteered. No, this is pure shame. It’s hard to avoid the fact that my country has put the whole world in deep jeopardy. And I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

I need to pray and meditate and journal. And it’s good to know I’m not alone in this.

My most popular blog post of all time remains a post from four years ago entitled What Color is Shame? It fascinates me that so many people search that question on Google. Just weird. I get a few hits on the story each day from all around the world, mostly England.

But since last Tuesday? I am getting 10-15 hits every single day, all from the United States of America.

Take care of yourselves, friends.

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Are You Faking It?

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Everyone knows that everyone else feels like a fake, right? The term Impostor Syndrome has been around almost forty years, and media outlets regularly do stories on it as if it’s just been discovered.

You would think that knowing we’re not alone would help. Yet somehow, having company doesn’t make us feel any less like a fraud. It’s as if we think we are the only genuine fake because we are comparing our insides to everyone else’s outside persona.

 When clinical psychologists described the syndrome in 1978, they thought it was unique to women. My guess is that women were just more willing to talk about it. Now researchers say that all types of people experience this phenomenon, especially if they feel different from others because of race, gender, sexual orientation, or other reasons.

I first became aware of it when a good-looking, successful, middle-aged male told me tearfully that “if people really knew me, they’d know I’m a fake. They wouldn’t like me.” I was stunned and deeply saddened that someone could feel that way.

At age eighteen, I was so out of touch with my own emotions that I didn’t know I felt the same way about myself!

Whatever you do, don't take off your mask!

Whatever you do, don’t take off your mask!

Just Say No to Condemnation

As a church leader, I hear the sentiment expressed over and over, in different words: “I am not good enough.” Always in a confessional or shame-filled tone.

Well, hell, of course you’re not good enough to please the scolding, shaming parental voice in your head! You are a human being, flawed and vulnerable and doing your best to muddle through life.

It’s a horror and a crime that many so-called Christian communities enthusiastically add to the judgmental, condemning voices in our heads. Shame! Sin! You’re going to burn in eternity!

Well, thank you.That was super helpful.

Those condemners are nothing like the God they claim to represent. I can’t know God fully, and neither can they. But I do know that if a voice in your head or a belief about yourself is not loving, it does not come from God, because God is love.

“As Yourself”

When Jesus was asked what the most important commandment was, he said to love God with everything you’ve got. And then he said to love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27). We are meant to be overflowing with love and compassion and grace towards ourselves.

We must first learn to love ourselves before we can properly love others from a place of healthy humility and self-acceptance. When we accept how beloved we are, just as we are, we won’t need to achieve or perform or prove ourselves. We won’t need to compete or manipulate. We can just be real. Now that’s freedom!

Thanks for the daily prompt of “fake,” WordPress.

Lessons From the Fall: Saying Yes

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The woman walked slowly across the parking lot, clearly not caring that her wrinkled blue scrubs were getting soaked with rain. She seemed bone tired, like she had just come off a twenty-four hour shift. Still, when she saw me wrangling a grocery cart with my left hand, trying not to involve my broken and braced right arm in the maneuvering, she didn’t hesitate.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

I looked her straight in her tired eyes and said, “Yes.”

This may not sound like much to you, but I think I felt the sidewalk tremble under my feet. You see, I never, ever answer yes to that question.

I haven’t completely figured out where my inability to accept help comes from, despite discussing this with my therapist numerous times. I am independent to a fault — there’s a fierceness to it that’s not healthy.

Back off, I got this!

Back off, I got this!

My therapist suggests that growing up in an alcoholic home meant I did not get what I needed, and so I learned to fend for myself and stopped asking for help. Maybe.

Or it could be in my blood.

My dad was a Texan, and I was taught that having Texan ancestry meant I could do anything I put my mind to. By myself. (The Alamo and all that.) Then there’s the British blood from Mom’s side, which signals my psyche that any sign of “weakness” is cause for embarrassment.

Somewhere I picked up the notion that there’s shame in needing help . . . that I should be able to do everything by myself and that there must be something fundamentally flawed in me if I can’t.

My discomfort may also be left over from olden days, when my self-esteem was nonexistent. I couldn’t believe anybody would truly want to help me, worthless as I was. Perhaps at some level I’m afraid if I “trouble” someone to help me, they might not like me — ah, those hobgoblins of old.

Do you find it hard to accept help, or am I alone in my neurosis here? If you can relate, have you ever wondered why you are like that? It doesn’t make sense to me — we are communal creatures, biologically made to thrive in help-groups.

Funny thing is, I like helping people. It makes me happy. So why would I withhold that pleasure from others? Maybe it was my imagination, but I think that the tired woman in the blue scrubs was walking with a little spring in her step after she helped me to my car.

Lesson number two from my fall: practice saying yes once in a while.

Related: You can find lesson number one about the illusion of control at this link.

That’s a Strange Post for Martin Luther King Day

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Ignominious. Isn’t that a marvelous word? I thought it might be fun to pull a favorite word out of my gray matter once in a while and write about it. Kind of stream of consciousness, but not entirely because that’s hard to do without sounding ignominiously affected. Virginia Woolf, I am not.

Anyway, ignominious is an adjective that means “deserving or causing public disgrace or shame.” Some synonyms include humiliating, undignified, embarrassing, and mortifying. I’m not sure why the word popped into my head this morning. Perhaps it’s because some friends and I were talking about family alcoholism and drug addiction, and stories of shame and disgrace naturally came up.

I’ve been thinking about alcoholism a lot lately, I guess because of the drunken fiasco in the streets of Philadelphia that I witnessed on New Year’s Eve, and because a friend of mine’s husband just died from the disease. I drafted a blog about alcoholism, but it’s on hold, along with yet another one about differing views on God, this one brought on when my atheist neighbor passed away last week.

I’m not writing about those things, though, I’m writing about ignominiousness. Ooo – it’s even better in the form of a noun, isn’t it? It somehow brings to mind the sound a spider might make skittering along it’s web to bind up fresh prey. Ignominiousness, ignominiousness . . .

I read in the Oxford dictionary that there are few words that rhyme fully with ignominious. The name Phineas, as in, “The dirty dancing of Phineas was ignominious.” And another word — new to me — consanguineous, which denotes people descended from the same ancestor: “My attempt to prove that Virginia Woolf and I are consanguineous was ignominious.”

And my favorite ignominious-rhyming word, which probably deserves a whole blog post of its own: sanguineous. I’ve always loved the word sanguine, meaning optimistic or positive, especially in the face of a bad situation. I love what it means, and I love how it sounds.

And what about the noun, sanguineousness? That sounds nothing at all like skittering spiders — more like a sea otter gliding across the ocean on its back with a pup on its tummy.

Well, even a stream of consciousness post must have some sort of point. Since it’s Martin Luther King Day, let’s make it about racial justice. And here it is: despite many being in positions of power, despite some being armed to the teeth, despite having a legal system skewed their direction, opponents of racial justice in America will eventually go down in ignominious defeat.

Like the police who turned firehoses full-force on peaceful African-American marchers so many years ago and created for themselves an eternal, ignominious reputation, the systems of white privilege, which many white people are unable to see simply because they know nothing else, will — eventually — be nothing but an ignominious chapter in the history books.

And that’s not just sanguineousness. That’s the arc of history bending towards justice.

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Breathing Room: Journaling in Space

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Last night while I slept, a miracle occurred: a new room was added to my house! I know this sounds unlikely, but the painters and carpenters who’ve been crawling all over my house are apparently using some pretty good amphetamines.

OK, maybe it was a dream. Only it wasn’t. It’s the WordPress Daily Prompt: An extra room has magically been added to your home overnight. The catch: if you add more than three items to it, it disappears. How do you use it?

This prompt is so obvious, I can’t pass it up. My three items would be my journal, a pen, and a chair. I’m hoping that my tea mug doesn’t count, but if it does, I’ll choose that and lose the chair.

My Clutter

In my home, there’s barely room to get dressed in the morning and little floor visible to vacuum. Let alone space on the couch to have a friend over. Every potential sitting spot is stacked with papers and books and piles of folded t-shirts, jeans, and socks. There’s no longer room in the bookshelves or dresser drawers to put stuff away.

My Morning Room

But enough of my woes! I have a new room – a breathing room. I will call it my morning room, and I will sit and journal for hours, undistracted by the guilt, shame, and despair I feel when I’m sitting amidst my clutter. Lots of light will pour through the latticed windows, outside of which flowerboxes will overflow with red geraniums. A hummingbird feeder will be hanging above the geraniums.

geraniums 001.b

Am I cheating by filling up the area outside the window? I think not. There are still just three things in my room. My journal, my pen, and my chair, which will be a wing-backed chair of the deepest royal blue – maybe even velvet! Or perhaps it will be a recliner with a foot rest, still blue velvet. The walls of the room will be various shades of purple and blue, and since it’s a magical room, I can change the wall colors just by imagining.

My Journal

My journaling will remain the same, a combination of here’s-what-I-did-and-here’s-what-I’m-going-to-do and an outpouring of anxieties and prayers and lists of things I need to work on – emotionally, spiritually, and in the material world. I’m sure if were to read back over the years I’d see helpful patterns, but the lack of progress might be depressing, so I don’t.

My blog readers tell me they like it when I share random journal entries, and this seems as good a place as any to include a few recent rambles.

  • May 23, on grief:

Five months. A few minutes ago, the phone rang twice and then stopped. His secret ring. Then I found a sheet of paper I’d been writing on the day he died. Notes about nursing homes and insurance coverage, and in the upper right-hand corner I had scrawled the room number he told me he was moving to after the test, except that the test proved fatal. Room 43461, it says. I had a wild thought to go visit it.

That’s all I want to say. It will be years and years before this penetrates. Those little reminders can slay you. Today I am able to choose whether or not to be slayed by the grief. I think I will not. My plan is to spend the day submitting my writing.

  • May 24, on meeting a stranger:

Got in a convo today with a guy named James. Interesting old fellow, actually only sixty-seven, but guzzling booze and living on the railroad tracks have left their mark. He talked of liberation and miracles. His turning point came when he was in his twenties, he said.

He was sitting on the railroad tracks with “another wino,” and the other guy started crying. “What’s the matter, Pokey?” James asked. “Don’t worry, we’ll figure out a way to get more wine before we go to sleep.”

“It’s not that,” Pokey said. “It’s you I’m worried about – you’re not going to make it.”

“That was the low point,” James said. “I thought about it all night, and after that I had a miracle and God took away my desire for alcohol.” Pokey died of alcoholism in his forties, but he saved James’s life. {Stories of James fill three more pages.}

  • May 28, on the morning:

Such a pretty morning here on my porch. It’s humid – we had a big storm last night. The birds are calming down a bit, settling in to the work of raising babies. Not so much boisterous ecstasy at dawn. A hummingbird is at the feeder, and a cardinal serenades from the big pine. The honeysuckle fills the air with sweet. God is so, so crazy gracious. Well, I have a ton to do before I head for New Hampshire.

  • June 3, on eavesdropping in NH:

I don’t have much privacy with these painters just outside all the windows, but for a writer, this material is priceless. They come around the corner and I hear, “That happens every time I get arrested.” How can I not tune in to their chatter?

“I got major heartburn. Downed fourteen beers last night.”

“Oh man, me too. I got that every day. I’m embarrassed to look my mom in the eye. What do you drink?”

“Budweiser.”

“I used to drink that, but I can’t afford it anymore.”

“So Ernie’s dead now, huh? Last time I saw him he wailed on me. Punched me right in the jaw for no reason. Guess he was just too drunk . . . Yeah, I lost my brother to heroin.”

“I don’t touch that stuff. I did coke once. Took a hit of acid once. Walked around town with a box of elbow macaroni and an Elmo doll, burning bugs on the sidewalk. It was a bad night.”

And on that note, I will sign off.

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